President Martha Pollock of Cornell University, formerly Provost at the University of Michigan, in early March spoke out boldly against the publicly announced effort by students to press the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on campus and promote a divestment resolution singling out Israel for discrimination.
In mid-February, students delivered a letter urging divestment from companies “complicit in the morally reprehensible human rights violations in Palestine.” Members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) emphasized that Israel shares a “common history” with the United States as a “settler-colonial project rooted in genocide” and claimed that BDS was working to isolate Israel “until it meets its obligations under international law.”
Pollock’s response came on March 2 in a statement expressing her “strong opposition to BDS” and emphatically rejecting the idea that Cornell should use its endowment as a tool of “political or social power.”
Pollock told the Cornell community that she believed “BDS unfairly singles out one country in the world for sanction when there are many countries around the world whose governments’ policies may be viewed as controversial.” Pollock also said that BDS oversimplifies a complex geopolitical situation, putting all the responsibility on one country alone, and that BDS frequently conflates the policies of the Israeli government with Israel’s right to exist as a nation.
Pollock distinguished sharply between colleges taking overt political positions and, through higher education, helping students develop the maturity and skills to reach their own conclusions. Pollock also stated that such a recommendation would curtail the academic freedom of students wishing to study in
Pollock’s forthright statement, it should be noted, mirror a spate of recent actions by several other prominent university leaders who seem to be growing tired of BDS’ ongoing assault on academic freedom and open intellectual exchange. The number of divestment campaigns on university campuses is down compared with just a few years ago, no more than 15 efforts this year, about a third of what BDS mounted just a few years ago; but such campaigns use up scarce resources and good will on campuses and stir intergroup divisions that sharply scar intergroup relations.
At Pitzer College of the Claremont Colleges in California, for example, President Melvin Oliver faced a move by BDS-led faculty and students in college governance to shut down an exchange program with Haifa University in Israel, to which the President responded by issuing a public statement firmly opposing BDS as discriminatory and a threat to academic freedom. Now faculty and students at Pitzer, who are considering a possible no-confidence vote in Oliver’s leadership, are in the meantime circulating a petition slamming Oliver’s action as undemocratic. Is he entitled to any less free speech than they? As another example, at the University of California in early December, ten chancellors of the UC campuses, in a bold statement, flatly declared their renewed opposition to boycott and to divestment. A similar statement may be forthcoming from leaders of the California state colleges system as well.
Finally, at Brown University, too, President Christina Paxson recently announced she will not cooperate with the results of an undergraduate student referendum supporting divestment. “Brown’s endowment is not a political instrument to be used to express views on complex social and political issues, especially those over which thoughtful and intelligent people vehemently disagree,” Paxson said in a statement. “As a university, Brown’s mission is to advance knowledge and understanding through research, analysis and debate. Its role is not to take sides on contested geopolitical issues.” At Swarthmore, too, where students voted for divestment, President Valerie Smith informed the campus the college’s endowment would not be altered. She said “we have a responsibility to manage the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results in order to fulfill Swarthmore’s educational mission rather than to pursue other social objectives.”
Back at Cornell, SJP is deaf to such presidential statements and plans to bring forward Student Assembly resolution #36 for divestment, which they say is backed by an intersectional alliance of over 20 student groups, including the Queer Political Action Committee, Black Students United, Climate Justice Cornell, South Asian Council, Islamic Alliance for Justice, and Cornell Young Democratic Socialists. Jewish students in Cornellians supporting Israel oppose the resolution.
At a session this week of the Student Assembly, the packed room was organized by ideology and by stance. Signs dotted the space: “Cornell has blood on its hands.” “Our tuition is funding oppression.” Supporters and opponents stood on opposite sides of the paneled room and argued passionately for or against singling out Israel for opprobrium.
This is where the debate stands. BDS will seek to press divestment at the upcoming Student Assembly meeting April 11, after spring break. BDS elements refer to Cornell as the “ivory tower on stolen Cayuga land,” (why don’t they boycott it? one wonders) and insist on pressing hard for divestment, as a similar motion in 2014 was beaten back and tabled.
The outspokenness of university presidents and chancellors – Pollock, Oliver, the UC Chancellors, and now Christina Paxson and Valerie Smith — indicates we may be entering a period where university leaders more forthrightly stand and speak out against BDS and against politicization. It is important for faculty in turn to support their actions, and – in the case of President Oliver at Pitzer, to back a president with backbone while highlighting the hypocrisy of faculty and students who attack academic freedom for others while posturing falsely their own is threatened by presidential speech.
Presidents cannot always be expected to act so forthrightly. But here they are modeling appropriate responses to ongoing BDS efforts. “No, not here, not in this place, we do not support your movement, we do not want our campus politicized and divided, and we do not wish to follow your example.”